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Full text of "Alexander Calder: December 9-December 27, 1947, Buchholz Gallery, New York"

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If sculpture is the art of carving movement in a mo- 
tionless mass, it would be wrong to call Calder's art 
sculpture. He does not aim to suggest movement by im- 
prisoning it in noble but inert substances like bronze 
or gold, where it would be doomed forever to immobil- 
ity; he lures it into being, by the use of unstable and 
base materials, building strange constructions of bits 
of bone, tin or zinc, of stems and palm-leaves, of disks, 
feathers and petals. They are sometimes resonators, 
often booby-traps; they hang on the end of a thread 
like spiders, or perhaps squat stolidly on a pedestal, 
crumpled up and seemingly asleep. But let a passing 
draft of cool air strike them, they absorb it, give it 
form, spring to life: a "mobile" is born! 

Grateful Acknowledgment is made to Mr. Louis Carre for giving the 
permission to reprint the text by Jean-Paul Sartre, first published 
in the catalogue of the Calder Exhibition at the Galerie Louis 
Carre in Paris in 1946 and reprinted in English in Style en France 
1947. No. 5 and to Herbert Matter for contributing the photographs 
and Mr. Saul Steinberg the portrait. 

A "mobile", one might say, is a little private celebra- 
tion, an object defined by its movement and having no 
other existence. It is a flower that fades when it ceases 
to move, a "pure play of movement" in the sense that 
we speak of a pure play of light. I possess a bird of 
paradise with iron wings. It needs only to be touched 
by a breath of warm air: the bird ruffles up with a 
jingling sound, rises, spreads its tail, shakes its crested 
head, executes a dance step, and then, as if obeying a 
command, makes a complete about-turn with wings 

But most of Calder's constructions are not imitative 
of nature; I know no less deceptive art than his. Sculp- 
ture suggests movement, painting suggests depth or 
light. A "mobile" does not "suggest" anything: it 
captures genuine living movements and shapes them. 
"Mobiles" have no meaning, make you think of noth- 
ing but themselves. They are, that is all; they are ab- 
solutes. There is more of the unpredictable about them 
than in any other human creation. No human brain, 
not even their creator's, could possibly foresee all the 
complex combinations of which they are capable. A 

general destiny of movement is sketched for them, and 
then they are left to work it out for themselves. What 
they may do at a given moment will be determined by 
the time of day, the sun, the temperature or the wind. 
The object is thus always half way between the servil- 
ity of a statue and the independence of natural events; 
each of its evolutions is the inspiration of a moment. 
It may be possible to discern the composer's theme, 
but the mechanism itself introduces a thousand per- 
sonal variations. It is a fleeting snatch of swing music, 
evanescent as the sky or the morning: if you miss it, 
you have lost it forever. Valery said of the sea that it is 
a perpetual recommencement. A "mobile" is in this 
way like the sea, and is equally enchanting : forever re- 
beginning, forever new. No use throwing it a passing 
glance, you must live with it and be fascinated by it. 
Then and only then will you feel the beauty of its pure 
and changing forms, at once so free and so disciplined. 
It may seem that these movements are made only for 
the delight of our eyes, but they have a profound 
metaphysical sense. "Mobiles" have to draw their mo- 
bility from some source. At first they were equipped 
with electric motors, but now it suffices to place them 

No. 5 

No. 19 

in the midst of nature, in a garden, for example, or an 
open window, and lei the breezes play with them as 
with an TEolian harp. They feed on air, they hi cat In-. 
they borrow life from the vague life of the atmosphere. 
Thus their mobility is of a particular kind. 

Though made with human hands, they never have 
the precision and efficiency of Vaucanson's automaton. 
But the charm of the automaton is that it waves a fan 
or strums a guitar like a man, though with the inflexi- 
ble jerkiness of a machine. The "mobile", on the other 
hand, weaves uncertainly, hesitates and at times 
appears to begin its movement anew, as if it had 
caught itself in a mistake. Yet the motions are too 
artfully composed to be compared to those of a marble 
rolling on a rough board, when each change of direc- 
tion is determined, by the asperities of the surface. 

I was talking with Calder one day in his studio when 
suddenly a "mobile" beside me, which until then had 
been quiet, became violently agitated. I stepped 
quickly back; thinking to be out of its reach. But then, 
when the agitation had ceased and it appeared to have 
relapsed into quiescence, its long, majestic tail, which 
until then had not budged, began mournfully to wave 

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and, sweeping through the air, brushed across my face. 
These hesitations, resumptions, gropings, clumsinesses, 
the sudden decisions and above all that swan-like 
grace make of certain "mobiles" very strange creatures 
indeed, something midway between matter and life. 
At moments they seem endowed with an intention; a 
moment later they appear to have forgotten what they 
intended to do, and finish by merely swaying inanely. 
My bird, for instance, can fly, swim, float like a swan 
or a frigate. It is one bird, single and whole. Then of 
a sudden it goes to pieces and is nothing but a bunch 
of metal rods shaken by meaningless quiverings. 

The "mobiles", which are neither wholly alive nor 
wholly mechanical, and which always eventually re- 
turn to their original form, may be likened to water 
grasses in the changing currents, or to the petals of 
the sensitive plant, or to gossamer caught in an up- 
draft. In short, although "mobiles" do not seek to imi- 
tate anything because they do not "seek" any end 
whatever, unless it be to create scales and chords of 
hitherto unknown movements — they are nevertheless 
at once lyrical inventions, technical combinations of 
an almost mathematical quality, and sensitive symbols 

of Nature, of that profligate Nature which squanders 
pollen while unloosing a flight of a thousand butter- 
flies; of that inscrutable Nature which refuses to re- 
veal to us whether it is a blind succession of causes 
and effects, or the timid, hesitant, groping develop- 
ment of an idea. 

C alder by Steinberg 


19 4 6-1947 


1 Moths 

2 Mare 

3 Stallion 

4 Yellow Spike 

5 Little Spider 

6 Tentacles 

7 Bougainvillier 

8 Five Leaves in Different Planes 

No. 23 

9 Orange Palate 

10 Armada 

1 1 Yellow Cleaver 

12 Hex Sign 

13 Red is Dominant 

14 Little White 

15 Red Racket 

16 Parasite 

17 Armadillo 

18 Many Pierced Discs 

19 Little Clearance 

20 Gamma 

21 Sword Plant 

22 On One Knee. Aluminum 


23 Monacle 

24 Artist as a Young Man 

25 Root 


26 The Rowel and the Tack 

27 The Hoodoo 

28 Impartial Forms 




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